Seniors and transfer hold keys to Notre Dame's fortunes
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By JOHN FINERAN
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Mike Brey has too many fond memories from his previous 21 seasons at Notre Dame to be bothered by how last season ended.
A 101-59 blowout by North Carolina in the ACC Tournament - the largest margin of defeat since Brey took over in 2000-01 and became the school's winningest men's basketball coach -- ended an 11-15 campaign played during the pandemic.
Brey's Fighting Irish have not gone to the NCAA Tournament since 2016-17, something he hopes to rectify for returning seniors Prentiss Hubb, Nate Laszewski, Dane Goodwin and injury-plagued Robby Carmody.
"We've got a neat group of old guys," Brey said. "We need to earn a spot on Selection Sunday and play better defense. It's not complicated."
Since the quartet arrived as freshmen, Notre Dame has gone 45-46, including 20-36 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But add in 6-foot-9 grad-transfer Paul Atkinson Jr. from Yale, previous transfers Cormac Ryan (Stanford) and Trey Wertz (Santa Clara) and two freshmen from South Bend (6-foot-5 guard Blake Wesley and 6-foot-6 guard J.R. Konieczny), and the 62-year-old Brey can't wait to get started.
"We've had a lot of old teams, but this is the most experience we've ever had back," said Brey, whose 448-248 record with the Irish includes 12 NCAA trips including back-to-back Elite Eight runs in 2015 and 2016. "That always gives you a chance."
Hubb, a 6-foot-3 point guard who averaged 14.6 points per game and led the ACC with 152 assists, again will run the show. The 6-foot-10 Laszewski (13.3 ppg, 7.3 rebounds per game and a 59% shooter) will get plenty of scoring help from Goodwin (11.8 ppg), Ryan (9.9 ppg), Wertz (8.3 ppg) and Atkinson, who averaged 17.6 points and 7.3 rebounds at Yale in 2019-20.
"We must make strides on the defensive end," added Brey, whose team was 271st (out of 340) in scoring defense (74.3 points per game). "I think we know what to do on the offensive end, and they're learning how to play with Paul."
Atkinson who won co-Player of the Year honors in the Ivy League in 2019-20 but did not play last season as the league suspended sports because of the pandemic.
So, Yale's most accurate shooter ever at 66.1% concentrated on getting his degree while choosing Notre Dame over other courters like NC State, Iowa, Miami and Texas.
"Paul can really run," Brey said. "He's got (good) footwork and hands around the basket. He knows how to use his body defensively (and) he can rebound."
The unquestioned leader among Atkinson and the six seniors is Hubb, who needs to shoot better (39.2% from the field, including 34.2% from beyond the 3-point line), cut down on his turnovers (83) and speak louder.
"My voice needs to be strong as the point guard," Hubb said. "I'm the head of the snake."
"We have to hold each other accountable," Goodwin added.
Former AAU youth basketball teammates Konieczny and Wesley played at rival South Bend high schools separated by 2+ miles. Konieczny averaged 28.2 points per game in leading Saint Joseph, while Wesley averaged 27.1 points at Riley. Both schools made deep postseason playoff runs.
"We signed them in November, yet they couldn't come to campus," Brey said. "I think I teased about meeting in the mall. `Let's run into each other at Smoothie King.' It was weird."
During the offseason, Brey reshuffled his staff, bringing back Anthony Solomon for a third tour of duty. Solomon returns from Dayton and replaces long-time assistant Rod Balanis, who is taking the same post at Howard, which hosts the Irish on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 17).
Antoni Wyche, who played for late Irish head coach John MacLeod, returns from Siena to join returnee Ryan Humphrey as assistant coaches.
The Irish open against visiting Cal State Northridge on Nov. 13 and play three games beginning Nov. 22 in the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas. They play at No. 11 Illinois (Nov. 29), home against No. 10 Kentucky (Dec. 11) and in Indianapolis against Indiana (Dec. 18) before getting into the 18-game ACC schedule in earnest with back-to-back visits from No. 9 Duke (Jan. 1) and No. 19 North Carolina (Jan. 5).
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Updated October 20, 2021